The General Wants Back into His Labyrinth

Pakistan's former military leader has announced he's returning from exile and wants his old job back. Here's what he would do differently -- and why he wouldn't want Hamid Karzai as his counterpart next door.

On any given day, Pakistan tops the list of states on crisis alert. But this week has been rocky in the south Asian country, even by that low standard. On Monday, the country's government looked like it might imminently fall; the prime minister's ruling coalition shattering as its second-largest party pulled out. Then on Tuesday, one of the country's most moderate politicians -- Punjab Governor Salman Taseer -- was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards.

So it's perhaps not surprising why some in Pakistan are looking with a bit of nostalgia to the government of former president and military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country for nine years. Musharraf, who has been in a self-imposed exile in London since 2009, has leaped at the chance to come back to politics, announcing on Jan. 3 that he'll be back in Pakistan with his newly formed political party in time for the next round of elections. Late last year, prior to his announcement, Foreign Policy spoke with the former president about what he would do, if given a second shot at ruling Pakistan. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: You once said that being in charge of Pakistan may well be "the hardest job in the world." But you have just announced that you are going back into politics. Why?

Pervez Musharraf: [It's about offering] another alternative to the people of Pakistan. At this moment, they are stuck between two alternatives: the [ruling] People's Party and PML-N, the party of former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. If you look at both of them, [they are] dysfunctional.

I call Nawaz Sharif a closet Taliban. He's a man who is -- who has been -- in contact with Taliban. He is a man who, today, appeases the clerics and mawlawis [Sunni Islamic scholars] -- the extremists. Moreover, he has tried [his hand at leadership as prime minister] twice in the past -- and he has failed. Why are we giving him a third chance to destroy Pakistan? My new party is an alternative to the people of Pakistan with the hope of changing the conditions of the people of Pakistan and the state.

At this moment, there is such hopelessness, and there is such a sense of despondency in the people of Pakistan. It's worrisome. People are quitting Pakistan. They want to leave the country. There's a leadership vacuum, and no political party has the wherewithal to meet this challenge. What I've done really is to present to the people of Pakistan with "here's another, an alternative." [And] I have been tested also for nine years.  

FP: Why should Pakistanis give you another chance if they weren't happy with you at the end of your presidency?

PM: I came into office on a very high pedestal; people wanted a change. Until 2007, I was very popular. And now with the situation that Pakistan is facing, my [favorability] graph has again gone up. Because Pakistanis now see what is happening. The poor man is seeing what is happening. Essential items' prices have gone up about four to five times [since I left office]. Wheat flour, rice, and pulses [legumes] -- everything is now five times higher. People have realized what has hit them. And a lot of people are calling me back, [saying] they want me back to save Pakistan. If you see my Facebook [page], which I launched eight months back, I have a fan [base] of 350,000 now today.

FP: You said this fall that Pakistan is doing enough to fight terrorism, despite international criticism to the contrary, especially from the U.S. and some European governments. Does that mean you think that President Asif Ali Zardari has been doing a pretty good job in the war against terrorism?

PM: One has to give the entire credit to the military, which is involved in fighting terrorism, fighting al Qaeda and Taliban. It has suffered about 2,500 deaths [in doing so]. It is the military which is doing very well.

Now, whether we can win or we are winning -- well, I think we are not losing. The important thing is not to lose there. And we will not [lose] if we show resolve. On the Pakistan side, I am reasonably sure that we can win.  

I think that the Pakistani Frontier Corps, which is the second-line force, needs to be reinforced substantially with more manpower and with tanks and guns to be able to [keep] all the tribal agencies' law and order. The Army should remain as a backup. [But we need] to relieve the pressure now on the Army. The Army is dealing with al Qaeda and Taliban in the West, and the Army has to watch the borders on the east, because the Indian military orientation is towards our border. And then when things like this terrible flood [happen], the Army again has to go for flood-relief operations. The Army is overstretched.

When [the West] blames the Army [for not doing enough, they also] blame the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence agency.]. But the ISI itself has suffered about 250 people deaths in bombing attacks. So, on one side the Taliban are attacking them; on the other side the West thinks they are in league with the Taliban.  

FP: Is it true, however, that some parts of the state security apparatus has sympathies with the Taliban -- as they did in the past?

PM: Yes, yes, that's right. Elements who have sympathy toward Taliban or al Qaeda in the past were there. They must still be there. But to blame the Army or the ISI is just having a very negative impact. As I said, the Army is there doing their job; it has suffered so many casualties. If anyone thinks that [there are rogue elements] at a strategic level -- at the level of the government or the Army headquarters or the ISI headquarters -- that there is an instruction being given down to cooperate with the Taliban -- this is absolutely baseless.

There may be some elements who are [cooperating with the Taliban]. But even there, we must understand and differentiate between strategy and tactics. Strategically, we have to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the moment [the West starts to] micromanage how to do that, we are in conflict with those [security forces] that are operating on the Pakistan side.

FP: What advice would you give Barack Obama today about AfPak?

PM: I'm against this idea of setting a timeline for withdrawal [from Afghanistan]. We have to install a stable, legitimate government in Afghanistan before we quit the area. So, to that extent, I do not agree with what he has decided. If they were to quit, all of a sudden in 2011 or start quitting, it may lead to problems in the area -- destabilization of the entire area. Announcing [a pullout] is [also] a bad idea because the moment you announce it, you put new forces into play. The Taliban and al Qaeda get encouraged. Time is on their side. They lie low and they come up again in 2011. So, therefore announcing this time schedule -- I wouldn't say it's a wise step that was taken.

Other than that, the advice that I would certainly like to give him is to give importance to Pakistan and to be conscious of the sensitivities of Pakistan in his political dealings in the region.

FP: What should the Americans be doing in Afghanistan?

PM: [The Americans and NATO] must show resolve and bring about a legitimate government in Afghanistan. But Karzai is not the right man, which he has proved. Who's the next is the question. [We need to] wean away Pashtuns, [the primary ethnic group from which the Taliban derive] from the Taliban and put them in government. We are [also] looking at dealing with moderate Taliban. We have learned after eight years to go in and deal with moderate Taliban -- something I was saying in 2002 and 2003.

FP: If you are elected back to office, how will your approach to fighting terrorism change?

PM: We have to use the military, the political, and the socioeconomic -- a three-tiered strategy. We have to wean away the people from the Taliban. In the past, we [thought that we] needed to gradually get [the regions] away from the tribal culture and bring the government into play -- provincial government, local government, and national government. But the demand of the day is very different now. We need to empower the ex-tribal maliks to counter al Qaeda and the Taliban because those tribal maliks were the ones who held sway over the tribes. If the Sept. 11 attacks had not happened, one would have preferred elections and local government to do away with the tribal culture. But now, with the Taliban being there, we need to get that same tribal culture back and ask the tribal maliks to take charge against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Educating the masses in the tribal agencies, especially the women -- that is very, very important. We should introduce education into the provinces, into the tribal agencies, and get the people educated. It's a long-term strategy of transforming the tribal agencies and integrating them with the rest of Pakistan.

Let Pakistan handle its situation in Pakistan, and you [Americans] handle the situation in Afghanistan. All the blame for whatever is happening in Afghanistan, including the cross-border activity, is put on Pakistan. Why? Why isn't the cross-border activity blamed on the coalition forces, the Afghan National Army, the Afghanistan government -- why is it not their fault? Is Pakistan responsible for every movement across the border? Doesn't anyone else also have a responsibility, also? If Pakistan is failing to stop al Qaeda and the Taliban from going across the border, then the coalition forces, the United States, Afghan government, Afghan National Army is also failing to do that.



Tony Blair Looks Ahead

The former prime minister and Middle East envoy offers his thoughts on the peace process, austerity measures, and whether he could have prevented the financial crisis.

When former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was named envoy to the Middle East in 2007 -- representing the "quartet" of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations -- he knew what it meant: "huge intensity and work." Now three years later, after the breakdown of the most recent peace talks, the conflict seems as intractable as ever. In conversation with Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson, Blair discussed the most knotty problems in the region, from settlements to Iran to the movement to unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine. And with a new age of austerity dawning at Downing Street, Blair had a few key things to say about his legacy and the future of his famous Third Way politics.

Foreign Policy: I understand that you met with some Palestinian leaders yesterday evening; what are your thoughts on the direction the peace process has gone, particularly on the Obama administration's push on the settlements?

Tony Blair: We've hit an impasse here. The challenge is to get an effective negotiation going, [one] that is credible. And the question is how do you give credibility to that negotiation -- and the settlement freeze was one way of doing that. We can't proceed on that basis now, but we can look for other ways of giving credibility to the negotiation. The important thing is to get a negotiation underway, in a context in which both sides have the confidence that this is a real negotiation, with both parties actually wanting to narrow the differences and reach a deal. Obviously, it's a setback for the process, but it's not a setback that should mean that we give up on it -- on the contrary, we've got to redouble our efforts and find a way forward.

FP: What's your take on the movement to unilaterally recognize the independence of Palestine, as countries such as Brazil have done?

TB: Essentially, when you're in a process where the ultimate agreement requires both sides to agree, unilateral moves are usually an expression of frustration, and in a sense that's what this is. There's nothing that can substitute or be better for the two sides [than] coming to [an] agreement, together. Because even if you go down this unilateral path, you can't bring the other party with you; you go back to the same issue, which is, how do you get an agreement?

FP: You touch on this a little bit in your autobiography, but I wonder what has changed about the way you see this conflict now that you're out of office and in the envoy position as opposed to when you were the head of government.

TB: There's one big and profound change, which is I now believe [in] this state-building exercise that the Palestinians are engaged in -- which is really about ground-up, you know, how do you build effective institutions, security, rule of law, an economy on the Palestinian side. I now think that is absolutely essential to the politics of this, because I think the basic problem is that we think that we can go back to the year 2000 and begin where President Clinton left off. But what has happened in the meantime [are] issues that are of profound significance to the credibility and trust that people have in this process. Each side has its narrative about this crisis, so the breakdown of the peace negotiations, the 2000 Intifada, the disengagement from Gaza, the takeover by Hamas -- each side will have its own narrative about why those things happened. But the cumulative effect is that you have got to rebuild trust in the reality on the ground -- security on the Israeli side, lifting the occupation on the Palestinian side -- in order then to get the politics moving again.

FP: A bit of a metaphysical question, but if you had to make a choice between dealing with the Middle East peace process or the issue of Iranian nuclear proliferation, where would you direct your attention?

TB: At both.

FP: Wrong answer. You only get one.

TB: The truth is, they are both very very important -- linked actually, because the acquisition by Iran of nuclear capability goes alongside their attempts to disrupt the peace process. Likewise, if you are pushing forward and making progress on the Israel-Palestine question, it enormously empowers those moderate, modernizing forces in the region. So, the two are actually linked, really, and we should be dealing with both.

FP: I want to turn now to the financial crisis and to Britain in particular, with the new government. Do you believe that their austerity program is the correct medicine for what ails?

TB: I don't really want to comment on the British political scene. All countries have deficit reduction plans at the moment, and that's not a debate I want to get into, really.

FP: Maybe to frame it in the context of your own government then, do you believe that there are things you would have done differently economically, signs you could have seen for the financial crisis?

TB: I think it's more -- the problem with the financial crisis is that people didn't spot what was happening within that part of the financial sector. But I actually think the reform program, both within Britain that I was implementing and the challenge to the European social model -- I think the need to address those challenges [that our reform programs were addressing, such as health care and public services] have been accelerated by the financial crisis. But I don't think they've been created by [the financial crisis]; they were there in any event.

FP: I'm very curious to hear your thoughts on the Third Way, whether there is still a role for that in modern politics.

TB: I still think the Third Way is basically where politics is, because this is all about a 21st century in which people have learned that government is necessary, but government can also be bureaucratic and a vested interest. It's all about a strategic enabling and empowering government, not one that's sitting on people, and that means you need a dynamic private sector, and you need welfare systems that are getting people off welfare and into work. You need public services that are far more responsive to the needs of the ordinary consumer of those services. All of that Third Way stuff you need. I think today's social paradigm is far more to do with being progressive and liberal on issues to do things like gay rights, and so on, but it is also very tough on issues like law and order and personal safety, so I think that set of Third Way positions is still absolutely where we should be.

Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images